Sunday, March 15, 2015

A Difficult 2014—Part Two

A FORMAL HORSE—s/t EP (self-released)
I started to listen to these things called podcasts in 2014, and it was during Sid Smith’s Podcast from the YellowRoom that I first heard A Formal Horse. “I Lean” was the tune, and I immediately drove over to the British five-piece’s Bandcamp page to get their five-song EP. They combine metal, jazz, and prog rock into appealing songs that are complex, yet compact, full of shock dynamics and interesting diversions. The EP features three vocal songs and two brief instrumentals that highlight the band’s musicianship and restless, meticulous approach. “I Lean” is still the standout track for me, lurching as it does between an eeriness that reminds me of Thinking Plague at their most accessible and sections that attack with prog-metal fervour. And because I rarely hear vocalists who impress me nowadays, it’s worth noting that the band have someone special in Francesca Lewis. Her precisely sung, unaffected style is one of their biggest assets. Just to be able to apply gravitas to lines like “No-smoking signs on a sex booth/lackeys cooking cats on a tin roof” is no small feat. Based on the 20 minutes of material on hand here, A Formal Horse get 2014’s most promising newcomer award.

HORSEBACK—Piedmont Apocrypha (Three-Lobed)
The tension between black metal and Krautrock and post-rock in Horseback’s music is mostly gone now, yet Piedmont Apocrypha remains a compelling listen. Horseback sounds more grounded and comfortable. If I’ve read the liner notes correctly, Jenks Miller credits the musical direction to moving to the country “closer to the trees than to other people” and to the sight lines from his back porch. His approach focuses more on clean guitars and the lonely rural twang…reminiscent of mist hanging over barren fields. The spirits of Neil Young and Gastr del Sol lurk in the title track and “Consecration Blues.” The album embraces everything sparse and airy until the last track, the 17-minute “Chanting Out the Low Shadow,” where vocals get growly and guitars get dissonant and things get heavy in a primitive blues way, building up to a bombastic climax. Another fine example of American art rock, and maybe Horseback’s most distinctive work yet.

LED BIB—The People in Your Neighbourhood (Cuneiform)
I’ve been ladling praise over this hard-riffing British jazz quintet for a few years now, and I’ll continue to do so, because The People in Your Neighbourhood is another excellent release (they also put out a live record this year). There’s little to choose between this album and their last couple—they all deliver a walloping. Maybe they venture out further this time—the detours away from the head of each song are more severe. These excursions can range far and wide, but the tenor sax team of Pete Grogan and Chris Williams always snap you back to attention with their piercing attack.

ARTIFICIAL BRAIN—Labyrinth Constellation (Profound Lore)
Some of the best cover art this side of Effigy of the Forgotten is the first clue that this is pretty crucial tech death. In an attempt to describe their sound, I’d say Artificial Brain occasionally come off as a more accessible Gorguts. Their songs have dissonant and spacey parts, yet the structures are compact and anchored by powerful down-to-earth riffs. The recording is a little murky but still punishing, with vocals mixed low enough to complement, not annoy. Many thanks for their show (part of a surreal bill with Gigan and Pyrrhon) at the Red Room here in Vancouver, with a guest vocalist who apparently flew in for a single gig because their regular singer couldn’t cross the border. That’s dedication to the cause.

HEDWIG MOLLESTAD TRIO—Enfant Terrible (Rune Grammofon)
Headliners on an excellent day at the 2014 Jazz Fest, the Hedwig Mollestad Trio laid down pretty much what I later heard on this album: hard-rocking jazz fusion based around heavy riffs, a solid rhythm section, and Mollestad’s versatile guitar work. They get comparisons to Black Sabbath—fair enough, given their penchant for covering the Sabs—but mostly they remind me of the Dixie Dregs in their solos and song structures. If the riffs first get the head nodding, then what the band explores after the main themes provides the real substance and excitement.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

A Difficult 2014—Part One

2014 had some ups and downs, like any other year. The ups were good, the downs were utterly terrible. Losing my father-in-law this summer was the biggest blow. It was awful, but he went out in typical Charlie fashion, calling the shots right to the end, and we were all there for him.

Overall, I had my health, my job, and my friends, I played plenty of music and took some nice trips. I got to see Yes, King Crimson, Nik Turner's Hawkwind and (Steve Hackett's tribute to) Genesis all in the same year. I'm truly a lucky individual.

I didn't make much of an effort to keep up with new music in 2014. This year's four-part roundup will comprise 21 albums that I bought and enjoyed. There's a bunch of honourable mentions and reissues that won't get full blurbs, but I'll which collect in a future post. As was the case last year, I'm not assigning numbers to these entries because honestly, I couldn't tell you if there was an appreciable difference in quality between album #12 and #11. Just assume that I'm saving my absolute favourite stuff for part four of the roundup.

SLOUGH FEG—Digital Resistance (Metal Blade)
The first song on Digital Resistance, “Analogue Avengers/Bertrand Russell’s Sex Den,” reels and jigs most proggily; a ways off from the Maiden/Lizzy galloping harmonies we’re used to from Slough Feg. The title track brings back the British/Bay Area steel, and we’re off on another solid collection of Slough Feg material. Some of it sounds a bit too familiar, but then a song like “Laser Enforcer” jolts you back to the reality of just how fine a band this is. Hats off to (now ex-drummer) Harry Cantwell for playing like a cross between Brann Dailor and Bun E. Carlos. Drum performance of the year! CD

GOAT—Commune (Sub Pop)
Commune is a solid album, but it didn’t blow me out of the water the way their debut did. The riffing is less chunky, moving instead towards airy trills that remind me of Six Organs of Admittance or Popol Vuh. Their rhythm section remains solid, though, leaving no doubt that this material would work live. “Gathering of the Ancient Tribes” concludes the goatritual in fine goatstyle, bringing back some of the afro-psych heaviness of the debut. GOAT are holding steady. It’ll be interesting to see if they find bold new ways to be weird on the next LP. Vinyl with die-cut cover and MP3 download

PINHAS/YOSHIDA—Welcome in the Void, PINHAS/AMBARCHI—Tikkun (Cuneiform)
"These two new albums...document two of Pinhas’s latest collaborations. Together they paint an expansive, vivid portrait of his globetrotting, playing-in-the-moment modus operandi." Reviewed in full here. CD/DVD

MOGWAI—Rave Tapes (Sub Pop)
Rave Tapes is confident, measured and often very pretty. Mogwai always impress me. By now it’s pointless to think of them as part of any movement. It’s not instrumental post-rock, it’s Mogwai music. They can do what they like. On Rave Tapes they’ve expanded their sound in subtle ways, working synthesizers into their music without changing their basic approach. They retain their eeriness and dark humour (on “Repelish” they sample a Christian LP warning against subliminal Satanic messages in rock music: “They sing backward in human voices”) and go brightly cinematic when it suits them, as on “Deesh,” which recalls eighties Genesis jams like “Home by the Sea” and “The Brazilian.” I’m more than OK with that. Green vinyl with die-cut cover and MP3 download

SHELLAC—Dude Incredible (Touch and Go) 
I kept up with Shellac through their first singles and couple albums, then I lost track of them. Dude Incredible’s arrival seemed a good time to catch up. Turns out they’re keeping it real tight. This excellent album’s main problem is that it never quite recovers from the excitement and terror of its opening track, which builds from a typically taut Shellac groove before breaking into a gallop that’s more like “Run to the Hills” than anything Big Black ever did, while Albini shouts about male bonding and hand-to-hand combat—I interpret it as a mock epic about a bunch of Jersey Shore rejects or businessmen out on the town...which is probably wrong. “Holy shit!” is the only possible reaction to the onrush. So what if the album never hits that peak again? Hearing these guys playing together is a pleasure, especially on some of the twisty bits on side two. Vinyl, includes CD

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Tago Mago: Permission to Dream, by Alan Warner (33 1/3 Books)

One of the best things about Bloomsbury's 33 1/3 series is how much leeway the writers have. They’re free to use autobiography or fiction, or concentrate exclusively on the minutiae of rock lit—music analysis, interviews, an artist’s history, release dates, critical reception, press clippings—to tell the story of the album in question. Alan Warner definitely mixes his modes in his volume on Can’s Tago Mago (1971). We learn about the author’s developing musical interests and record-buying habits as a teenager isolated in small-town Scotland during the late ’70s. Stepping away from his personal history, he also gets down to the nitty gritty of the double album itself; for example, detailing the tape edits on “Halleluwah” (side two of Tago Mago) and interviewing several Can members about their time recording the album. The interviews are also tinged with autobiography, because as Warner explains, he has befriended and even collaborated with the band in the years since he dedicated his debut novel Morvern Callar to Can bassist Holger Czukay.

The autobiographical sections are fascinating and hilarious. I’m predisposed to being interested, though, as I’ve been an Alan Warner fan ever since my wife-to-be gave me The Sopranos to read right before we started going out. His descriptions of his interior life as an “aloof, pretentious, eccentric” boy fumbling his way towards musical sophistication are priceless. Curious to push through the heavy metal vernacular of his peers (“Each one of my friends was emotionally sympathetic and spiritually aligned to the activities of Richie Blackmore’s Rainbow,” he says) he buys dodgy post-breakup Sex Pistols albums and a Weather Report LP with a compelling and mysterious cover, and finds much of interest, especially in the latter. The search for anything by Can, inspired by John Lydon referencing Can and their drummer’s “double beats” in one of the weekly music papers, leads him to the big city, Glasgow, and the Virgin Megastore where he eventually acquires the holy grail—Tago Mago.

Any serious music fan can relate to the impressions that Warner describes on his journey to Can—the unforgettable impact of an album’s arrival, and the profound meaning that an inanimate object can instantly possess: “I remember the euphoria of being on the train home, splitting the cellophane wrapping all the way around, to peel it completely free and open up the concealed centrefold sleeve…” Passages like that make me I think, Okay, Warner, can we have 200 more pages of that, please? Tell us about all your records, man!

However, it’s a 33 1/3 book, and the format won't allow for 200 more pages, so Warner uses the second half of the book to discuss the history and philosophy of analogue tape editing, the evolution of the band, and the genesis of, and curiosities to be found within, the tracks on Tago Mago. He includes snippets of conversations with Michael Karoli, Irmin Schmidt, and Jaki Liebezeit, purveyor of the double beats. For some, having only half a book devoted in-depth to Tago Mago might not be enough. There is plenty more Can documentation they can seek out. I was left happy, and curious to hear more of the Can discography, as well as hear many of the members’ solo releases, which Warner often references. I was inspired to get out the album and listen along as he detailed each track. And by the end of the book I was an even bigger fan of both the author and his subject.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Jeff Younger's Devil Loops Volume 2 CD Release, June 18, 2014 at the Orpheum Annex

Jeff Younger continues to push his Devil Loops project into new territories, and this event was the furthest he’s pushed it yet. In my reviews of his previous CDs, I’ve noted that the music itself is layered and detailed, alternately soothing and aggressive, and rewards close listening. Younger composes in the moment with guitar, amp, and effects pedals, but also with household objects (combs and nail files) and even a new set of gestures and ways of playing—breathing into the pickups, mashing the strings, or scraping the tremolo springs behind the guitar body. Avant-rock bands like Sonic Youth have been sticking screwdrivers through their strings for decades, but Younger takes these techniques in a completely different direction. Devil Loops on CD is a deep listening experience, its abstract nature also inviting interpretations from other artistic disciplines.

That multi-disciplinary potential was fully and wonderfully realized at the Devil Loops volume 2 CD release event at the Orpheum Annex. The Annex is a big room that’s quite a shift from the kinds of intimate venues that Younger often performs in, but it was perfectly suited to this event, which combined music, dance and visual art into a often-dazzling whole. Every performer brought the spirit of Devil Loops alive in all that project’s challenging, mischievous permutations.

The night started with a playback of several tracks from the album with video accompaniment by Flick Harrison, as well as a solo dance segment by Renee Sigouin to “Queen Bee.” Sigouin was joined by fellow dancers Elissa Hanson and Alexa Sloveig Mardon for “Roomies.” To finish the first half, Younger took his seat on the huge stage (the floor, to be precise) and embarked on the first live Devil Loops music of the event. After intermission, the action got more freewheeling and frenzied, with Younger joining forces with drummer Dylan Van Der Schyff, Chris Gestrin on piano and synthesizer, and JP Carter on trumpet and effects. As the various configurations of dancers and musicians worked together, the action was so involving, the attention required so demanding, that I sometimes wanted to laugh out loud at the brave abandon of it. (I apologize to any of the dancers who came near the front row and might have noticed my agitation—I was just getting caught up in it all.) Dylan Van Der Schyff is the most creative drummer I’ve even seen—for every “out there” technique that Younger used, Van Der Schyff had one of his own. For the show’s finale, every performer was out on the floor, including Flick Harrison, who was shooting live video from every perspective for simultaneous projection on the big backdrop screen.

To see this group of performers working so well together to manifest the whole Devil Loops ethos was a testament to Jeff’s curatorial skills. Although he was at the centre of a lot of the action, he remained a calm presence, presiding over the performances as a guiding spirit, letting the ensemble of diverse talents speak for itself—and they did him and his music proud. It was a night that left my head buzzing with inspiration and endless possibilities.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Yob—Clearing the Path to Ascend (Neurot)

The newest release from the legendary Oregonian doom trio turns out to be the most open and expansive Yob album. With only four songs, it originally struck me as a very long EP. I felt during the first few listens that it might have lacked enough content to make for a satisfying 62 minutes. I still can’t shake that notion; however, Clearing the Path to Ascend just needs to breathe and be whatever it wants to be. Not forcing things is what Yob’s all about. In a way, they’re saying more by saying less. “In Our Blood” eases us into the album with a mere 17 minutes of everything that makes Yob great: lumbering riffs rippling with complex overtones, downward shifts into sparse strumming and shock-cut volume dynamics—the whole whisper-to-a-roar gambit. “Nothing to Win” almost takes the form of a conventional rock song with its tense-verse-and-cathartic-chorus structure. That impression is undone, of course, by the dissolution of all that during the song’s second half. But man, does it build to a huge finish. The song highlights the album’s murky production—it’s not bad or detrimental to the material; it’s just such an onslaught of competing tones. That element of the Yob aesthetic hasn’t changed. The drums fight to get through beneath the mattress pile of guitars, which is always threatening to collapse and smother you for good. The last track is really something magical, and it’s the one I’ve had to work hardest to change my perspective on. At first “Marrow” seemed bloated—a nearly 19-minute song made from about 8 minutes of material. There’s no question that it’s a beautiful set of chords with an affecting melody overtop. Mike Scheidt sings his heart out on it. Moodwise, it feels like a heavy ballad from the ’70s in the tradition of “Here Again” by Rush, “Parents” by Budgie, or Zep’s “No Quarter”. Those bands managed to say their piece in the space of 7 to 10 minutes; why couldn't Yob? Damn modern bands and their lack of self-editing. But “Marrow” develops beautifully and it does have enough content for what would have been a side-long epic back in olden times. It’s the most graceful song they’ve recorded, and when I hear the first few notes ring out, I know that I’m in for one of the year’s best pieces of music.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Z—Visions of Dune (InFiné)

Based on the liner notes for this album, Bernard Szajner (aka Z) sounds like an all-round genius—a visual artist, musician, inventor, and engineer. As the creator of light shows for Euro-prog outfits like Gong and Magma, he specialized in transforming sound to image. With Visions of Dune, originally released in 1979, the transformation is reversed: Szajner’s own visions of Frank Herbert’s universe are translated into sound. The sounds themselves are quite spectacular. Szajner bases everything on his all-powerful synthesizers, and employs a team of guest musicians to fill out the picture with guitar, bass and drums. It’s planetarium music for sure, but unruly and unsettling enough to plunge into some truly dark matter. Z’s cosmos is not necessarily a harmonious, friendly environment. The tracks are relatively short for this kind of exploratory music, especially compared to Tangerine Dream or Klaus Schulze’s side-long excursions. However, they often crossfade to provide seamless stretches of listening. The drones and sweeps of “Dune” are like an approaching wall of fog that give way to the percolating sequences of “Bashar” and the following tracks. Drums enter the picture on “Bashar” and “Fremen” to lay down a funky beat. The chaos and overlapping elements remind me of Heldon’s anarchic approach. The feeling of barely reined-in circuitry is very similar. Who’s winning—man or machine? The mp3 download included with the vinyl adds two bonus tracks that were originally left off the album for being “too futuristic.” Indeed, the moaning, scraping bleakness of “The Duke” and droning menace of “Spice” are interesting diversions from the main programme. Jodorowsky shouldn’t have bothered trying to cajole Pink Floyd into making the soundtrack for his own vision of Dune. If he’d waited long enough, he might have stumbled on this music instead. I’m betting Jodorowsky and Szajner would have been a good match. This album is a brave new world to discover, even 35 years after the fact.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

A Difficult 2013—Part Five

Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats—Mind Control (Rise Above)
Discovering the musty, macabre thrill-show of Blood Lust late in 2012 certainly got me primed for the arrival of Uncle Acid’s next collection of debauchery. Mind Control is less ramshackle than Blood Lust—it sounds as though everyone had learned the material before turning up at the studio, which lends certain songs (“Poison Apple”, “Mind Crawler”) the kind of punch that Blood Lust achieved, I suspect, only through happy accident. Overall, though, it’s a little less urgent than its predecessor, a little more sunburnt if not desiccated, which suits its Manson family/California nightmare theme perfectly. As with Manson, psychedelics and The Beatles enter the picture as well, especially during the “Blue Jay Way” strains of “Death Valley Blues”, which is where the album peaks for me. Sometimes they’re unfocused, sometimes songs drive towards endings that turn out to be just a mirage and they wind up wandering aimlessly across the desert. But I have to trust whoever’s in charge because the whole thing simply works for me, the songs occasionally achieving a grimy sort of grandeur, as on “Desert Ceremony.” I’m game to follow Uncle Acid and crew off whatever artistic cliff they’re racing towards next.

Blood Ceremony—The Eldritch Dark (Rise Above)
Toronto’s own minstrels in the gallery triumphed this year with The Eldritch Dark, a witchy, hooked-filled delight. What stands out most is their unpretentious celebration of a good tune and a solid riff. They're a refreshingly down-to-Earth four-piece band with spare arrangements that still made room for detailed, elegant songs like “Drawing Down the Moon” and should-be-a-hit “Goodbye Gemini.” They don’t just blindly worship at the church of Sabbath; I wouldn’t doubt they're down with Fairport Convention too. In a year when I took a wrong turn or two when it came to stoner-y stuff (man, I did not get along with that Orchid album at all), Blood Ceremony delivered in terms of originality and personality. Seeing them on tour across the country with Kylesa and White Hills this year proved that they’re for real. I’ve been curious about this band for a while, and I’m glad I picked this album to join them on.

Purson—The Circle and the Blue Door (Rise Above)
Rise Above are finding the greatest bands these days. Purson’s debut album is sheer class, confidently occupying its own loftspace somewhere in the neighbourhood of prog and stoner rock. They’re a bit like Curved Air in that they don’t swing hard in one direction or the other; they simply make a hell of a pleasing sound—maybe a little too elaborate for the mainstream, but at their core they rock hard enough for the jean jacket crowd. Singer/guitarist Rosalie Cunningham has a similar “don’t mess with me” tone to the mighty Sonja Kristina. Note that the only band on Rosalie’s thank-you list is The Beatles, so she’s clearly been inspired, songwriting-wise, by the masters. It’s worrying to see that the band that recorded the album and the current group have completely different lineups (aside from Cunningham), but here’s hoping that they can make this a going concern. Anyway, the Purson you hear on The Circle and the Blue Door are a band with a haughty allure, with songs that rock with carnivalesque abandon and defy you to write them off as merely “promising.”

Anciients—Heart of Oak (Season of Mist)
From my blurb for Hellbound’s year-end roundup: It was a thrill to watch Anciients on the rise throughout 2013. From tours with TesseracT, Death (Official), and Lamb of God to an invitation to play Roadburn in 2014, it was clear that the Vancouver quartet had arrived. Their calling card, of course, was their magnificent debut album. Heart of Oak sings with style and confidence. Each of its nine tracks reveals an innate understanding of how epic metal songwriting works, while never resorting to formula. It’s fun to imagine them in a makeshift lab in some desolate Quonset hut feverishly distilling their sound from casks labeled “Opeth,” “Mahavishnu,” “Celtic Frost,” and “Thin Lizzy,” but the truth is, there are no simple recipes for successful heavy metal. Anciients had the inter-band chemistry, taste, and, most of all, the work ethic to lay this record down, get it right the first time, and proceed to take on the world.

Steven Wilson—The Raven That Refused to Sing and Other Stories (k-Scope)
Wilson’s previous solo work (that is, the solo work released under his own name, not the early one-man-band Porcupine Tree albums) was, in the context of latter-day Porcupine Tree, a little experimental and reticent. Insurgentes was full of new ideas and interesting treatments. 2011’s Grace for Drowning was diverse and expansive, taking on classic progressive rock tropes and owning them. That double album often brought the hammer down, but not in the way The Raven That Refused to Sing does. The Raven… reduces the palette compared to the often jazzy textures on Grace…, and delivers six masterful songs. Out of all the “Steven Wilson” releases so far, doesn’t feel like a solo album at all. You can tell he poured his heart into this, as songs like “The Raven That Refused to Sing” make an emotional impact equal to their musical muscle. Lyrically, he makes a welcome break from the topical, contemporary themes of Porcupine Tree, and instead tells stories in each of the songs (although there’s surely social commentary within the sad tale of “The Holy Drinker”). Much as I like cheering for the underdog and championing certain music for its endearing imperfections, I do love this almost ruthlessly impeccable album, and have no problem putting it at the top of my Best of 2013 list.